This summary explains how the various criminal justice agencies deal with an defendant once identified, presents the recent trends on how the Criminal Justice System (CJS) response to offending is changing, and identifies factors that may be causing the changes, where identifiable.
The total number of individuals, which includes people and companies, who have been dealt with formally by the CJS in England and Wales, in either of these ways, has been declining since 2007, and is now at its lowest level since 1970. Police recorded crime peaked in 2003/04, and that recorded offences are now lower than at any time over the past decade.
The number of individuals dealt with formally by the CJS for the first time has also fallen since 2007. The reduction has been much sharper for juveniles, reflecting both a decreasing number of juvenile offenders reprimanded or issued with a warning and the decreasing numbers of juveniles found guilty in all courts. However, per head of population, the rate of juvenile first time entrants remains higher than for adults.
The use of cautions increased steadily during the 1970s and 1980s, before declining from 1993 until 2002. This decrease followed a circular issued to police forces in March 1994, which discouraged both multiple cautions and the use of cautions for the most serious offences.
From 2002, the use of out of court disposals increased rapidly and peaked in 2007, before decreasing year on year to 2012. The increase coincided with the introduction in 2001 of a target to increase offences brought to justice, and the decrease coincided with the replacement in April 2008 of the target with one placing more emphasis on bringing serious crimes to justice. The latter target was subsequently removed in May 2010.
All criminal cases in England and Wales start in a magistrates’ court. Criminal proceedings brought before the courts are divided into three main offence groups:
*Indictable proceedings, which cover the more serious offences such as violent and sexual offences and robbery, and tend to be passed on to the Crown Court, either for sentencing or for a full trial with a judge and jury;
*Summary proceedings, which cover less serious offences, are almost always handled entirely in the magistrates’ courts, with the majority completed at the first hearing. They are split into two categories:
*Summary non-motoring proceedings, such as TV license evasion and less serious criminal damage; and
*Summary motoring proceedings, such as speeding and driving whilst disqualified.
The number of defendants proceeded against at magistrates’ courts increased during the 1970s up to the mid 1980s, with a gradual increase in prosecutions in all three main offence groups. In 1987 however, prosecutions decreased due to a significant drop in summary motoring offences brought before magistrates. This was partly due to the introduction in October 1986 of the extended fixed penalty notice system, which increased the range of summary motoring offences which could be handled out of court, and partly due to the removal of the need to instigate criminal court proceedings to register fines for unpaid penalties.
From 1987 to 2004, the number of defendants proceeded against in court remained broadly stable, between 1.8 and 2.0 million. Since 2004, prosecutions declined almost year on year to 2012, driven by decreases in summary motoring offences brought before magistrates. The biggest decreases were for vehicle insurance offences, with large decreases also for driving licence related offences, speed limit offences, and driving after consuming alcohol or taking drugs.
Around six per cent of all defendants proceeded against are committed to the Crown Court for trial, virtually all for the more serious offences. The number of defendants appearing in the Crown Court for trial increased between 2005 and 2010 as a result of a greater proportion of cases being committed and sent for trial. Since 2010, this trend has reversed, with the volume of defendants tried at the Crown Court on the decline.
Trends in the number of offenders convicted – that is, defendants who plead or are found guilty – and sentenced at all courts are driven by two factors, namely the number of individuals dealt with through the courts (the trend in prosecutions) and the proportion of those individuals who are found guilty. Conviction ratios are calculated as the number of convictions as a proportion of the number of proceedings, and give a measure of the relative number of defendants who are found guilty within a given year when compared with the number who are prosecuted that year.
Over the last decade, convictions have declined almost year on year, in line with declining numbers of individuals proceeded against. However, the decline in convictions has not been as steep as for proceedings, as a greater proportion of proceedings have resulted in convictions (reflected in the increasing conviction ratio over the period). The complex nature of the CJS means there are a number of possible factors contributing to this change – for example, changes in guilty plea rates, the mix of cases handled in and out of court, impacts of operational changes, and so on – and it is difficult to separately identify the impacts of different factors.
Fines are the most common sentence given to offenders at all courts, accounting for two thirds of offenders sentenced, due in the main to the large volumes of fines issued at the magistrates’ court. The proportion of offenders sentenced with a fine has decreased since the 1970s, at which point as high as 88 per cent of offenders received fines.
A greater share of offenders have sentenced to community sentences and immediate custody (that is, to prison or other form of secure detention) since the 1990s, and the use of Suspended Sentence Orders (SSOs) has risen steadily since 2005, as a result of the Criminal Justice Act 2003, which made SSOs more readily available.
The courts sentenced a higher volume of offenders to immediate custody each year between 1993 and 2002, partly due to an increase in total numbers being sentenced. Since 2002, volumes decreased to 2007 before rising again up to 2011. Between 2007 and 2011, the immediate custody rate (the proportion of all persons sentenced receiving immediate custody) increased, resulting in numbers sent to prison or other forms of secure detention increasing despite the overall fall in offenders sentenced. In 2012 however, the immediate custody rate levelled off at 8 per cent.
The average length of custodial sentences has increased over the last decade, driven mainly by changes in the case mix of people getting custodial sentences, with summary offences increasingly dealt with through other sentence types, and longer sentences being given for indictable offences. Further, legislative changes have made sentence lengths longer for certain offences – for example, a third domestic burglary.
The introduction of the Criminal Justice and Immigration Act (CJIA) in 2008 restricted the use of Indeterminate sentences for Public Protection (IPPs). This has coincided with an increase in long determinate sentences (defined as for 10 years or more), which may also have contributed to the increase in the average length of custodial sentences since 2008.
The bulletin is produced and handled by the ministry’s analytical professionals and production staff. Pre-release access of up to 24 hours is granted to the following persons:
Ministry of Justice: Secretary of State for Justice; Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Criminal Justice; Minister for Policing and Criminal Justice Strategy; Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Justice; Permanent Secretary; two Special Advisers; Director General, Corporate Performance Group; Director General, Justice Policy; Director, Criminal Policy; Director, Crime; Director, Analytical Services; Policy official, Criminal Law, Sentencing and Youth Policy; Policy official, Youth Sentencing; Policy official, Out of court disposals; Policy official, Cautions; Deputy Head of News; Senior Press Officer; one further press officers; eight private secretaries.
Home Office: Home Secretary; Permanent Secretary; Director of Crime; two press officers; Chief Statistician; one private secretary.
The Judiciary: Lord Chief Justice; Chairman of the Sentencing Council; Head of the Office of the Sentencing Council.
Other: Attorney General, Policy Official, Cabinet Office.